Getting stashed? A biological anthropologist explains why the 'stashing' phenomenon happens in relationships

Dr. Helen Fisher helps us navigate when to stay and when to go.

Dr. Helen Fisher helps us navigate when to stay and when to go

(Credit: Toa Heftiba/unsplash.com)

This article was originally published December 5th, 2017.

You know when it's happening. Apart from their Labradoodle, you haven't met a single person in your lover's life. In the months you've been dating, you've gotten to know their sofa and throw cushions quite well but not once have you shaken a friend's hand or hugged a family member. Sure, you go out, and it's fun — but they only seem to take pictures of their food. You remain well out of frame and you aren't getting tagged. Instead, you're getting stashed.  

To be fair, you also know when you're guilty of stashing that not-so-special someone well out of frame. We, as humans, have actually been guilty of stashing each other for thousands of years.  

Thankfully, we at least have a name for it now. In the rich, ever growing millennial dating lexicon that seeks to hang a handle on the hurtful happenings of courtship, "stashing" joins "ghosting" (disappearing, phantom-like, without a trace), "breadcrumbing" (leaving a flirtatious but staunchly non-committal social media trail of crumbs), and "haunting" (texting back way too late, especially after ghosting, with something in the "sup boo" variety). Stashing is singular though in that it exists, and has existed, without benefit of social media.

To find out why humans have been doing this to each other for millennia, we reached out to a proper expert, biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher, Senior Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute, the author of ANATOMY OF LOVE: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray, and the Chief Scientific Advisor for Match.com.  

Fisher was clear: we're all prone to stashing a partner. The thing is, we're actually doing it in the name of love. Or rather something Dr. Fisher calls "slow love" and that, in the long run, may be a good thing for both stasher and stashee.

Stashing for Fisher is really just part of the much larger trend of slow love (aka "commitment lite"), an undeclared state of partnership that's one step beyond friends with benefits. Millennials in particular, she says, are now playing the long game when choosing a mate. One reason for that is ambition. "They're putting off marriage because of career". The other reason that comes up is far more telling: it's primal fear. And not of commitment. She says that millennials are categorically horrified by the idea of divorce. Fisher explains that "67% of singles are really terrified of the financial economic, social, and personal consequences of divorce". And commitment isn't even the issue, in fact "86% of people in America end up marrying by middle age" in any case, she says. Marriages later in life, something that leads to far higher marital satisfaction, isn't accidental. Nowadays people don't want to make a mistake early on and choose the wrong person. So they're quite content to take their time. Slow love.    

This really is about "love and partnership" she says, not just sex. People "basically want to get to know every single thing about a person before they get into a relationship". Enter (or re-enter) stashing.

Grabbing some take out, watching a movie, sharing some intimacy, but not telling friends and family about the relationship makes a lot of sense especially when, as Dr. Fisher says, "you haven't decided yet". And there's the rub (or stash, as it were). This is about keeping options open, for as long as it takes to get it right, much to the stashee's chagrin. And it's nothing new. 50,000 years ago, our hunting and and gathering ancestors would partner up two or three times over the course of their lives. "There's nothing new about trying to pick the right person", says Fisher.  

While seeking Mr. or Mrs. Right, Dr. Fisher said "there are a million reasons" to stash Mr. and Mrs. Right Now. We asked her to weigh in on the top reasons and what, if anything, you can do about them.

Your stasher doesn't know what you are

If you think your partner just isn't sure about the long haul, it may not be necessary to cut and run. Yet. When asked if one should end it or mend it if one is being stashed, Dr. Fisher said it "depends", then brought up cats. "Don't forget that love is like a sleeping cat that can be awakened any time." Yes, you could be getting stashed because your partner just isn't feeling romantic, long-term love but that, she says, can switch fast — and on a chemical level. You might have incredible sex, say something hilarious and come off as decidedly and bewitchingly clever, and once that happens, Fisher claims, it's no longer a matter of "get rid of them" for the stasher, it immediately becomes "how do we move this to the next level".

An important caveat bears mentioning here: while the person you're dating has every right to take things as slowly as he or she wants, trust your gut — when you're done wasting your precious time hoping for something to eventually click, get out.       

Your stasher knows exactly what you are

And, sadly, isn't that into you or can't couple with you for a variety of frustratingly legitimate reasons. This may not mean your stasher is embarrassed by you or is a level 5 dark demon. Sure, you may be "a walk on the wild side" for someone who's between things or just looking for "a warm bed", says Fisher but they also might simply be unable to weave you into their close social ties. Culture and religion, in love as in life, can play a big role. Sometimes stashers are well aware that their stashee has a shelf life for a host of rationales and "know they could never bring this person home to mother or introduce them to their friends". Yes, the not-going-anywhere stash is "certainly something that people will do", asserts Fisher.

Regardless of motive, here you are destined to stay on their sofa forever. There's no mending this, end it — and the sooner the better. Have "the talk" to clarify where you stand and if you stand nowhere near a real future with your stasher, get out. Unless you're really into that crippling feeling of crushing disappointment after losing reams of your time spent clinging to hope like a floatation device. There are other stashers in the sea, or win some lose some. Pick your platitude.        

Your stasher isn't proud of their friends or family

Yes, your stashers may also be protecting themselves. Fisher is adamant that "some people are really embarrassed by their family". Parents with, say, substance abuse issues or serious behavioural problems can make stashing seem like the right move to someone trying to mitigate family shame or keep their status high. Again here, open communication about their family (and a willingness to endure some awkward fam jams) is the best way to mend this stash dynamic. Of course, a truly problematic family situation may also be a valid reason to end things. Stashee's choice.          

Less commonly, your stasher may not have any friends or is a terrible planner, though don't hang your hat on these rarities, says Fisher. She confirms that we're social animals and "the vast majority of people on this planet have friends" with no shortage of social obligations providing opportunities to bring a partner along. In other words, Fisher adds, "keeping someone from your friends and family takes energy and planning". So a bad planner with no friends is probably just feeding you a load of stash.   

Your stasher thinks you're too good for them

And is ultimately keeping you hidden so you aren't tempted by the flirty fruit of another.  Surprisingly, Fisher says this behaviour is prevalent planet wide. It's called "mate guarding" and its goal is to fend off another common behaviour: "mate poaching". Fisher explains that in "studies touching over 30 cultures" an impressive "50% of both men and women have poached" a mate from another. If you've ever brought a date to a party only to watch them leave with another suitor, you've been had by a wily mate poacher.  

The tendency to guard, of course, could mean that your stasher simply doesn't trust you. Here too the lines of communication need to be open to parse out the real issue. As trust between stasher and stashee play a role in this stashing situation, it's typically more of a mend than an end. Unless your stasher is pathologically insecure, or you end up meeting the fam over the holidays and fall for the cousin under the mistletoe.   

Who plays the game best?

If you're wondering who is more likely to stash a partner, women or men, Dr Fisher admits that none of the studies she's seen are definitive on the matter. But she did venture a very educated guess based on her own recent research data from a sample of 5,000 people: "Women were more likely than men, statistically speaking, to be going out with more than one person at a time". To Fisher's mind, "that is probably a good indication that women are more likely to stash."

"It's a reproductive strategy, you know, they may be stashing two men." Or more. Why? Fisher trots out an old chestnut here: "all's fair in love and war — a truer statement was never made."

Marc Beaulieu is a writer, producer and host of the live Q&A show guyQ LIVE @AskMen.